It seems like ancient history now, but you might remember that one of the first things I did after arriving in Johannesburg with my family was to go find myself a car. Because all the other errands of getting settled in as an expat were extremely cumbersome without one.
I did, eventually, buy one, and proceeded to write Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa about my odyssey. When I wrote it, I had no idea that this blog post would become one of the most widely-read stories on this site, with over 20,000 pageviews. If you Google “Buying a car in South Africa,” you’ll find me right there at the top. It has driven a lot of traffic to my site, and I like to think that I have been instrumental in helping quite a few people navigate the treacherous waters of acquiring their wheels in a new country.
All in all, it was a blog post to be pleased with, if not particularly proud of. My writing has evolved, and I’ve written a lot better and more profound since then, but it adequately reflected my experiences at the time.
Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by a reader who took issue with my Tips on Buying a Car. He was being very polite, but was wondering whether I was a racist, based on a sentence about “those Indians in Benoni” and how I was advised not to trust them.
Before I move on, this is what had happened in 2010: We had found a car on Autotrader that we liked. We wanted to buy it, but were reluctant to hand over a big wad of cash to a car dealer without getting a title, the way it works in the United States. In South Africa, the process is different. You do indeed buy the car without getting any official document other than the invoice, and then you go and register the car, where you get your certificate of registration. But we didn’t know any of this at the time, and so asked our relocation agent for advice. No one at their office knew anything about the process, but eventually the owner promised she’d ask her husband and get back to us. Who was the car dealer in question, she wanted to know. We gave her the name, and when she came back to us a few days later, she was adamant that we shouldn’t do business with them. They were not to be trusted, based on the part of town they were in (Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg), her husband as well as all of the office staff agreed. Even though none of them even knew how to register a car, which was our main question.
Back to a few weeks ago, and the unexpected complaint in my inbox. Of course I bristled. My defenses went up. No one likes being called a racist. So I replied, also very politely, explaining how those views reflected on my blog in the quotes of others didn’t have to be my own, that I was just recording what other people said, that whitewashing such comments doesn’t do anyone any good, because bringing them out in the open starts a valuable discussion, bla bla bla. I said all those things and pointed to other blog posts that would hopefully illuminate my non-racism, and he seemed very happy with all that I said in the email exchange that developed.
But only after all of this did I truly sit down and re-read my car buying blog post. And now, with my newly sensitized eyes after our little conversation, it glared right at me: Anyone reading it would probably assume that Indian car sellers in Benoni were not to be trusted. It didn’t matter that this was what colleagues and relocation experts told us, not what we were thinking ourselves. That already then I could sense some of the deep racial divides running through South African society. That when a middle-class white Afrikaans-speaking man warned us of doing business with a well-established dealership that happened to be in Benoni, it was mainly a reflection of his own fears and prejudices and nothing to be taken seriously. I remember thinking all of this at the time of writing, but I did a poor job of explaining it. And I realized now that sometimes you DO have to go back and revisit your own past on a blog. You have a ton of readers, you show up at the top of the Google results page, and you have an obligation to be fair and not hurtful. Not even with a stray comment.
My new friend put it to me this way:
I am a South African, a third generation Indian, and the owner of a few motor dealerships. Our business has grown steadily, mainly through word of mouth. The “Indian dealers in Benoni” is a very common generalization we hear all the time. Any future South African expat coming here [and reading your blog post] would immediately stay away from “Indian dealers.”
I have since amended my blog post. I didn’t take out the warning uttered by our relocation agent, as that somehow seemed insincere and in a way is part of the story, but I further explained the comment and put in a link to cars for sale by Dada’s Motorland, the dealership we DID end up buying our car from, in Benoni, and probably Indian-owned. We DID trust our salesman, we DID hand over the money, and we did NOT ask our relocation agent for any further advice. We were very happy with the car for the three years we had it, and the purchase was straight-forward and everyone extremely helpful.
I hope this somehow makes up for it. I have trusted a lot of people in South Africa whom I was told not to trust, and I’ve never come to regret it. I’d also like to mention here that I have removed all links to Corporate Relocations from my site, the agent in question who made the comment to us in the first place. There were some other reasons for this is well, as I didn’t feel they were sufficiently helpful to newly arrived expats, but the incident with our car dealership played a role. Relocation agents, just like me with my blog, have a responsibility to show the beauty of all the country they are representing, not just a thin wealthy suburban slice.
Fear is a powerful thing. It is usually fear that drives people to say derogatory things about others. You are afraid of that which you don’t know or understand. I will never forget the time I was in Alexandra, considered by many to be the darkest, scariest, and most dangerous place in all of Johannesburg. I was visiting a woman in her home and we somehow got to talking about Diepsloot, the township nextdoor to where most expats live and where they often volunteer. She was appalled that anyone would voluntarily go there, as it was so dangerous. Not “safe and orderly like Alexandra,” as she put it. The name Diepsloot struck fear in her, because she didn’t know it, just like the name Alexandra strikes fear in most people who don’t know it. I’ve recorded the entire conversation in Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, if you’d like to read it.
So here is my shout-out to Benoni, to all the Indians, Whites, Blacks, Coloreds, Gays, Straights, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, and all other women and men and children of every stripe or color who call it their home. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, and I regret never having visited it properly (the only pictures I could find in my collection were of softball and baseball games we had there). One day I’d like to write a story about the fascinating history of Indian-South Africans, who among them count none other than the great Mahatma Gandhi (even though he didn’t stay in South Africa, as we all know – but here is a good summary of his time in South Africa).